On becoming a civil servant in the mid 70s, I found myself in the thrall of what could be called ‘civil service, or Mandarin, English’. That is, writing English as if you were an Oxbridge graduate, never using a single syllable word, when you could find one with at least three. The use of this style extended to the internal memos, which preceded e-mail, and especially those memos sent by senior management and those of us with a pretension to higher things. It took John Major’s Citizens Charter and the promotion of ‘simple English’ within the public sector to bring about a significant change in the attitude and style of correspondence within the public sector.
Education, Education, Education, was the mantra of New Labour in 1997. However, 13 years post New Labour’s mantra and some 20 years post the Tories Citizens Charter, it seems that instead of a nation educated and proficient in the use of ‘simple English’, we are now a nation of ‘English simpletons’. Benedict Brogan’s article in The Telegraph adds to this view. Brogan writes that senior civil servants say that the standard of written submissions from officials who entered Whitehall in the past 10 years is surprisingly poor. These senior civil servants find themselves correcting spelling, fixing grammar, and re-writing documents to make them intelligible. One minister told Brogan that this may be due to the enforced informality of the Blair years, when Labour tried to replace perceived stuffiness with more vernacular language.
Vernacular or Vague? Probably both! That some 40 years of ‘modern education’ should result in a nation of illiterates is the albatross hanging around the neck of generations other than mine, though my generation and that before me, should own up to being the most complicit in bringing it about. Whether or not this state of affairs extends to all nations where English is the mother tongue, I don’t know.
Vagueness is on the march and it isn’t just formal education that has brought this about, firstly television, then the Internet, and now mobile phone texting, all impact on both the written and the spoken word. In a City Journal article with the sub title The decline and fall of American English, and stuff, the author recounts how a woman appearing on a television programme described a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard.
“And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what Helloooolooking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrpBrrrpbrrrpbrrrpike, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” .
Apparently she rambled on, speaking in self-quotations, sound effects, and other vocabulary substitutes, punctuating her sentences with facial tics and lateral eye shifts. He adds that by 1987, “like” was no longer a mere slang usage, it had mutated from a hip preposition. Linguistic rabble had stormed the grammar palace. The principles of effective speech had gone up in flames. And with it, presumably, the written word.
Quo Vadis? I noticed that that Brogan concluded his article in The Telegraph with an “Ahem”, and perhaps I’m reading to much into this by connecting it with Molesworth and St Custards. While I don’t advocate a return to the teaching of classical languages in school, as at St Custards, the Molesworth stories are funny because the deliberate spelling and grammatical errors are recognised. But all of this may simply be the perennial complaint of an older generation with regard to a younger one. Yet declining education standards, especially in state schools, was a theme used by C.S. Lewis in ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’. This was first published in 1961. Sufficient time for the educational academics to devise the educational albatross that we now live with. What Lewis wrote in 1961 was not apocryphal it was apocalyptic.